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Childhood is up for sale

Economists view the side effects of business activities that are not reflected in the cost of the end product as externalities. Pollution, in other words, is “external” to manufacturing, and the polluter can ignore it effects unless the government requires clean-up. According to Joel Bakan, a UBC law professor, childhood is also an externality. Big business has found a lucrative market in youth, and the damage that may result to my son or your daughter from their efforts to make a profit is not part of the commercial equation.

 In his book and documentary film The Corporation, Bakan described the evolution of the modern corporation and why it is legally bound to get away with degrading the physical and social environment. Corporations have a duty to make profits for shareholders but no duty to their communities. Bakan emphasized, however, that he doesn’t intend to vilify business people. The corporate institution is the problem, and with our and our governments’ assent, corporations have become less and less accountable to society in their pursuit of wealth during the past 30 years.

 On October 1, The Vancouver Institute hosted Bakan on the UBC campus to speak about his new book Childhood Under Seige: How Big Business Targets Children. He described how corporations undermine parents’ ability to protect their children from harmful products and influences by means of marketing and media, which have an ever-expanding reach through the internet and mobile devices. Bakan said that media corporations view children’s vulnerabilities and curiosity about sex and violence as resources to be mined for profit. And they are succeeding wildly in getting children to look at screens--up to 8 hours a day according to a U.S. study-- where they view streams of advertisements.

 According to Balkan, marketing to children began in the 1950s as commercial television became established. Now it has become overtly manipulative and sinister to the point that at least two pioneers of marketing, James McNeal and Martin Lindstrom, have turned against the excesses of the industry. The messages children receive from media include fulfillment through consumerism, using force and guile to get what you want, and the adulation of physical attractiveness. Balkan called this the central curriculum of childhood, and if this curriculum were offered in schools, adults would be up in arms. “Maybe we should be,” he added.

 Another threat to children and adults is the permeation of water, food and our bodies by chemicals. Children’s developing organs are especially vulnerable to disruptions by molecules that mimic hormones or damage immunity. In the U.S., during the past 40 years, 26,000 new chemicals have been created and introduced, but only about 200 have undergone safety testing. Industrial chemicals might contribute to ailments such as attention disorders, cancer, or even birth defects, but North American regulations assume that until a chemical is a proven toxin, it is safe.

Childhood Under Seige examines several other areas in which the well being of children is subverted by business interests. Bakan singled out British Columbia as having the worst child labor laws in North America. “Even worse than Haiti,” he said. In B.C., at 12 years of age, children can work in any setting except a mine or a tavern. Then there is the use of medications in children for whom the treatments have never been approved by Health Canada or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This occurs because pharmaceutical companies seldom bother to do the necessary but expensive clinical studies in youth. Doctors can prescribe any medication to anyone, and they sometimes have no choice except drugs which have been studied only in adults.

 The solution for this state of affairs, according to Bakan, is smarter and tougher regulation of corporations. He described the history of the 20th century as one of progress in improving the lives of children in industrialized countries until the 1980s. As anyone interested in politics knows, that is when Reagan, Thatcher, and Mulroney came into power and began implementing the policies espoused by the Chicago School of Economics. The neoliberal agenda promoted scaling back government oversight of industry, curtailing the influence of organized labor, and promoting multilateral trade agreements favourable to business.

 Bakan anticipated critics who would argue that parents and not government should be in charge of their children. Yes, he would reply, parents should look out for their children, but they cannot test the safety of chemicals. Parents cannot ensure that children who are bathed in media will not be influenced to crave unhealthy foods. “Parents cannot do it on their own—the problems are too large,” he said.


In his view, parents are up against huge organizations with massive resources to promote their products in seductive ways and to lobby against consumer protections. Parents need to find a voice to counter this. Regulation could promote appropriate uses and testing of consumer products based on the precautionary principle, which is now the standard in the European Union. Restricting the times and content of advertisements could shield children from promotion of risky products and activities. “It’s a question of imagination and political will,” Bakan said.


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